Urban-Type Monastery

 The life of the monks in a modern city monastery  02/26/2014, 21:10

Dmitry Gvozdev
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Urban-Type Monastery
Photography by Nikita Khnyunin

High stone walls, a smouldering torch in a tiny cell, a Bible on the hard bed — that’s how you imagine monastic life. The mission of the Archangel Michael Monastery located in Novosibirsk’s Leninsky District persuades us that these ideas are obsolete. Sib.fm’s correspondent found out how modern monks live.

It all started in 1997, when a male monastic community settled in the village of Koziha, Novosibirsk Region. The village council allocated a building to the brethren: a brick garage, built on the site of the village church, which was destroyed back in the godless thirties. The temple has been restored — it’s now the Archangel Michael Monastery. Today, the monastery has seven missions. One of them, the parish of St. Vladimir, is located in Novosibirsk — the only one of the monastery’s seven missions located within city limits.

The parish was formed around the construction of the large Holy Trinity Vladimir Cathedral. Building works began in 1997 and the monks themselves have been working on it ever since — the only professionals there are an architect and the foreman. Nevertheless, construction is almost finished and the first floor is already open for parishioners, although the walls are still being painted.

«Sponsors come and go,» complains abbot Theodosius. «We need 100 thousand roubles ($2800) to redo the floor between the first and second storeys, and another million ($28000) to purchase tiles. Although, when it comes down to it, the church isn’t poor. In fact, it’s the main source of income for our monastery.»

Theodosius says that 20 monks and three novices now live at the mission by the Holy Trinity Vladimir Cathedral. A novice is someone who has just embarked on the path of monasticism; priests and ministers will test his faith and will for at least three years before conducting a rite of initiation. The ritual involves three basic vows: celibacy, poverty and obedience. It’s easier to renounce your personal life, name and property than your free will — only a handful of people are capable of completely giving themselves up to the Church and rector. The monk’s new name means that his namesake saint will ask for his salvation before God in heaven.

Schemamonks wear a pointy hat, or cowl, and a special cloak on the shoulders, back and chest — the analabos

In the Orthodox Church, novices usually get their monastic habits at the same time they make their vows. There is another set of vows — the schema, which means complete renunciation of the world, ascetic pledges and round-the-clock prayers for salvation. Schemamonks change their names again, which gives them an additional holy supporter in heaven.

The monks say that politicians forgot about churches before the elections and stopped making the large donations they did in the past decade

The monastic day begins at 6 a.m. Half an hour later — morning prayer, service and a light breakfast. They don’t have their own refectory yet, so novices and monks eat in the high school’s canteen. Then, obedience. That’s what compulsory labour is called in a monastery. Subsistence farming isn’t possible at the urban parish, so someone launders, someone else tidies up and a third mows the lawns. But the main work here is still construction, although workers «from outside» recently appeared on site. To put it simply — migrant workers. The monk whose obedience is to keep an eye on the hired builders, most of whom are Muslims, is not at all bothered by the difference in faith. At five o’clock in the evening, there’s worship and dinner, from nine to eleven — free time.

Cleanliness and order prevail in the cells of the residential block. Each room has four beds, bedside tables and alarm clocks, books, CDs and, of course, icons. The whole building is served by one large bathroom with shower cubicles. A monk’s life here is restricted to the cathedral, residential block and a modern administrative building, where the combination of office appliances and icons doesn’t seem out of place.

During construction, monks lived and prayed in the former building of a public amenities centre. Now, the St. Vladimir Orthodox high school is located there. The school gained a second class in 2011 and now has 25 students. The girls in knitted berets and boys in strict suits, in addition to the basic school subjects, study choral singing and the fundamentals of Orthodox culture.

On the other side of the concrete fence with barbed wire live men who have given another vow of obedience — the oath of allegiance. The proximity of the military unit benefits the monks: soldiers sometimes help with odd jobs; the clergy, in turn, conduct church festivals and services at the garrison.

Occasional offices are a type of obedience: prayers and rites requested by parishioners in church or at home. Usually, people ask for communion, funeral services and the consecration of property

«Different people come to the monastery,» says the abbot. «Some are just out of the army, others are already long retired, but they come of their own accord. However, not all their reasons for beginning monastic life are the right ones — if a tragic event or a desire for new experiences brings a person here, we take them in, of course, talk to them, and let them live here for a while, but no more than that. Of course, we try not to take in tramps and send them to half-way houses instead. There are only two right reasons to start monastic life — a great love for God and a desire to atone for your sins. Unfortunately, people often leave us. It’s a tragedy, but we don’t hold anyone back.»

The modern way of monastic life, of course, differs from that described in ancient books. Heating is required in the church, and the Siberian climate also demands a different diet.

«These days, not everyone is courageous enough to live without light and heat,» says Father Theodosius. «A saint once saw three winged people flying across the river from worldly life into the Garden of Eden — the first made it across confidently, the second had trouble, and the third almost fell down completely. The most confident one was a monk from the distant past. The one who hesitated lived a bit later. The one who flew worst of all is an image of monks from recent times, who won’t have committed any acts of moral courage, but will still get to heaven because of their humility.»

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